Originally published June 14, 2016

Note: Sexual trauma is addressed in this week’s column.

Editor’s note: Sex and relationship advice columnist Yana Tallon-Hicks is currently on maternity leave. While she’s gone, we’re reprinting some of her best columns of the past several years, and are looking forward to her return in September.

Hi Yana,

I can’t seem to want to have sex unless I’m drunk.

This has always kind of been the case, except for when I was a teenager, and horny all the time (and not drinking). Then when I got to college, there were many instances where all my friends would be going on about how much they “needed” sex, and I could never relate. It was only when I got drunk that I would feel the same sort of uncontrollable desires.

Whenever I date someone, there’s that beginning period where we’re wooing each other, so we go out all the time (and drink) and I can’t seem to get enough (so we have a lot of sex). Now I’m in a relationship with someone I really care about, we’re about seven months in, and I just never want to have sex.

My significant other has noticed and thinks I’m not really attracted to them. That’s not the case. It’s more like, I can’t “let go” and enjoy myself if I’m sober. I have too much racing through my mind, or I’m frustrated because I can’t orgasm, or I’m frustrated because I can’t make them orgasm.

Our short term solution has been to just not have sex until we both feel like it, but the problem is that I literally don’t even think about sex unless they bring it up. They’re okay with it for now, but I’m worried the lack of physical intimacy is going to eventually drive them away.

I don’t know if it’s the birth control I take (I’ve been on it for a few years), if a past trauma is for some reason rearing its ugly head now (I was raped in college and assaulted once as a child), but I feel like something is wrong with me!

— Confused with a Low Libido

Dear Confused,

This sounds like a really hard place to be in and I’m grateful that you’re verbalizing it. As my readers know, consent education is a huge part of my work.

It’s one thing if someone enjoys a drink before sexual activity with an established partner they know and trust and have built familiar consent practices with. It’s another if someone feels like the only way to experience sex is to get to the point of intoxication, a state of mind that renders clear consent impossible. This jeopardizes the safety of you both — you as the intoxicated one and your partner as the person attempting to honor your boundaries and make you feel good rather than unsafe.

The human brain and body are quite amazing machines. When someone has experienced sexual trauma as you have, our brains and bodies can put up barricades to potentially triggering situations like sex to protect us. But sometimes these barriers can also block up other things we would like to enjoy — like sex with our partners!

Frequent drinking can sneak its way into someone’s sexual repertoire as it can trick the brain into lowering those barriers. Drinking can slap a temporary band-aid on the mental barriers making sober sexual enjoyment difficult.

Drinking likely slows down your racing thoughts, quells your frustrations, and creates an illusion that you’re present in your sexual body. However, racing thoughts, frustrations, and remaining unaroused are all messages being sent to you by your body that you should pay attention to rather than smother with alcohol.

Not having sex until you both feel like having (sober!) sex is a perfect rule for now. A long term solution is to address this trauma that rightly-so has your body saying “sex isn’t safe right now” via therapy.

Your partner can get involved via couples counseling, working to understand that your sexual desire levels aren’t about them, reassuring you that you don’t need to have sex to keep them, and by collaborating with you on a sexual Yes/No/Maybe list such as the one on autostraddle.com.

This is hard and worthwhile work. Reading Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma by Staci Haines is a great introduction to the process of reclaiming your sex life from trauma.

Yana Tallon-Hicks is a relationship therapist, sex educator, and writer living in the Pioneer Valley. You can find her work and her professional contact information on her website, yanatallonhicks.com.